Friday, 20 February 2015

Berlin to Łódź 2013: Day 1

world-map berlin


Just returned from a great few days in Paris, doing all the standard things that a sightseer must do in that city on their first visit. Eiffel Tower climbed, Notre Dame checked out, the only thing left undone was a visit to the Louvre (time ran out) although I did get my photo snapped by the glass pyramid. Anyway, more on that trip later when I get round to writing it up.


In the meantime, we’ll be leaving Japan for a while and starting a new travelogue, one which records the short break that I took in the autumn of 2013 when we travelled from Berlin to Łódź in Poland checking out some of the interesting sights on the way. Hope you like it.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

And also check out my 2007 Berlin travelogue!


Back in 2003 I took a trip. Along with my brother we journeyed by rail from Varna in Bulgaria to Zierikzee in the Netherlands. The trip was significant for me since it physically linked the Balkans where I had been living and which I knew well with the Netherlands which I also knew intimately and which I had already travelled to by land (and a little bit of sea) from my home country. Eastern Europe to Western Europe, the evolution of one familiar part of the world into another, through half a dozen countries virtually or completely unknown to me. And it was a good trip, a fun trip, but as we raced from capital to capital, I felt that I was missing something, I was only getting a taster, a superficial experience of this unknown region once referred to as Mitteleuropa. So when I returned to the UK back in 2005, I decided to get underneath the surface a bit more and go back to explore more of those places that I'd merely passed through on our great railway journey. In 2007 I went to Berlin, the city where we'd literally got off one train in Zoologischer Garten station and jumped onto another so fed up were we by then of capitals, and then in 2008 I took a trip around Slovakia before finally, in 2012, I linked up that 2003 trip with my other great train adventure, closing the Missing Link between Konotop in Ukraine and Bucharest and in the process exploring a lot of Romania and Moldova.

In 2012 though, I also went on another, much shorter, European expedition, a few days in and around Kraków. This time I travelled with Mike, a colleague from work. It was my first trip to Poland and I discovered another country very much to my taste buds. So, when Mike suggested jetting off east again, who was I to disagree, albeit under one proviso: that I could link it to my other journeyings, to see exactly how Poland fits into the glorious European jigsaw.


Berlin Schönefeld was familiar territory and it hadn't changed much since my last visit six years earlier. We left the terminal with our light bags and took the S-bahn into the centre. I must admit, I like that introduction to Berlin as the S-bahn traverses where the wall once stood and you get a panorama of East to West. This time I took out my camera and filmed from Alexanderplatz through to Zoologischer Garten, a journey which now takes just over ten minutes but, when my dad did it in the 1970s, lasted several hours and involved several customs and passport checks. Well, at least mankind has moved forward in some areas.

We got off at Charlottenburg where the map on the internet had told me our hotel was, but then we hit a problem as it clearly wasn't there at all and even my back-up option of going to the hotel where I'd stayed in 2007 – which was right by the station – was a no-go as that place had gone upmarket in the intervening years and was well beyond our price range. Ever resourceful, we headed into a corner shop and asked for a map, but even that didn't help as Gürtelstraße, the street in the hotel's address, was nowhere to be found, even in the index. The lady behind the counter wanted to help but she spoke no English and my German consists entirely of phrases garnered from war films watched with my granddad as a kid. I suspected that 'Achtung!', 'Mein Gott!' and 'Heil Hitler!' might not be much use here, but then a chance encounter saved us: a customer entered to buy some cigarettes and spoke to our host in Russian which she was, apparently, fluent in. Realising that we now had something approaching a common tongue after all, we had a discussion in some sort of vague Slavic about our predicament and discovered that Friedrichshain – the district where the hotel was located – was in fact off the map, and so, things sorted, we headed off deep into the suburbs of what was once East Berlin and there, just off a crossroads that could have been in Kiev, Krakow or Krasnoyarsk, opposite an election poster of Angela Merkel[1] that had been imaginatively defaced to give her devil eyes, we found the Hostel Georghof, our cheap[2] sleep for the night which was surreally housed in a former office block, our twin room perhaps being the HR department for some middling Berlin sales company only a few years before.

D2L03Angela Merkel: Would you vote for this woman…?

That evening we had an appointment to keep. Not with a local, but with a bona fide resident of the German capital. Like London, Paris and a dozen other world cities, Berlin is an international place and Dzhilbert was a product of this. I got to know him fifteen years earlier when he was living in a sleepy little town in Northern Bulgaria and studying in the local university. Since then he's studied further in more illustrious establishments and then lived in various cities across Europe and Asia whilst following a successful career in finance. I hadn't seen him since 2008 when we'd caught up in Budapest at the end of my Slovakia trip, but in the meantime I'd visited his mum and dad in Bulgaria and he'd met my mother-in-law in far flung Vietnam. It was time to meet up.

We made our rendezvous outside Hackescher Markt railway station – one of the prettier in Berlin – and after introductions made our way to our dining venue. The area around Hackescher Markt had been notable during my last visit for the large number of girls walking around wearing very tight corsets. I'd later learnt that they were all prostitutes and that it was the main red light district, but regardless of this, as a man who has always admired the corseted female form, they were a pleasant visual distraction. Sadly, this time they were only notable by their absence. Have street-walking fashions changed or had the area been cleaned up?

I'd deliberately kept our dinner venue as a surprise from Mike, (Dzhilbert had heard about it before), and whilst he knew that something was up, he hadn't enough Deutsch to translate its name: Unsicht Bar. This was a place that I'd read about back in 2004, tried to visit in 2007 – it had been fully booked up – and made sure not to miss this time around. Unsicht Bar – the name translates roughly as “No Sight Bar” - is operated and staffed completely by blind Berliners and it gives diners a chance to explore their world. After ordering from the ambiguous menu in the reception area, you are then led to your table by your own personal waiter/waitress and you dine in the dark. Mike certainly hadn't expected that, (I think he'd been anticipating something a little kinkier – if only the corsets had been out on display!), but he, along with Dzhilbert, was up for a new experience. The question is though, how was it? Well, they say that the lack of sight enhances the other senses and so the taste buds should be amongst them and I must say, the food that we were served was damned tasty, although whether that would have been the case if it were served “normally” I cannot say. What struck me more however, was how our personal interactions changed. With no sight to rely on, our conversation became more muted as we were more aware of the volume of our speech and also there was no talking over one another, instead we naturally fell into a pattern of taking turns. Also noticeable was how difficult it was to actually find your food on the plate and to know when you're finished. Finally, there was a worrying feeling of dependency which I have not felt since childhood. Whenever you wanted anything you had to call for your waitress by name and then just hope that she heard and would come soon. Without her you were as helpless as a baby.

B2L01The weird and wonderful menu at Unsicht Bar

After Unsicht Bar we had a couple of beers in a bar by Hackescher Markt station where I caught up further with Dzhilbert, and then we made our separate ways, Mike and I heading back to Hostel Georghof where we bought a load more beers from the proprietor and then drank away the first night of our mini-break in our strange office with beds in it.

D2L02Beers with Dzhilbert

Next part: Day 2

[1]Elections were only a few week's hence and Merkel was comfortably in the lead. On a personal level though, I struggle to see why anyone would be tempted to vote for her but then again, I'm neither German nor right-wing which could explain it. Nonetheless, from the graffiti viewed on display in Berlin, I suspect that many of the locals would agree with me.

[2]€32 p/n

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